Monday, March 17, 2014

Nat Ross -- The Man from Rag-Town

Ross (born in San Francisco, California, on June 13, 1902) directed several pictures for Universal Studios in the 1920s (Ridin' Wild, 1922; Pure Grit, 1923; The Slanderers, 1924; College Love, 1929) before turning to producing in the 1930s with films like The Man from Gun-Town (1935), The Outlaw Deputy (1935), and Crash Donovan (1936).  The one-time assistant to producer Irving Thalberg was out of the movie business by 1941 and was the co-owner-night foreman at a rag factory on S. Broadway in midtown Los Angeles.  On the night of February 21, 1941, Ross was informed by a co-worker that Maurice ((M.) L. Briggs, 25, was outside waiting to speak with him.  A few weeks earlier, Ross fired the man, an ex-convict who served three years in a South Carolina prison for bank robbery.  Less than two weeks earlier an intoxicated Briggs had turned up at the factory and threatened Ross with a pocket knife.  Complicating the situation was the ex-con's 21-year-old estranged wife, Betty Susan Briggs, a worker at the rag factory supervised by the 38-year-old former film director.  After only two weeks of marriage, the woman left Briggs in December 1940.  Convinced that Ross was "chasing around" with his wife, the jealous ex-con decided to confront him.  When Ross went outside to meet the disgruntled former-employee, Briggs fired two rounds from a .25-.35 caliber rifle into the man's chest killing him instantly.  Twenty-five horrified employees witnessed the murder and saw the assailant flee the scene on foot.  Briggs was arrested a few minutes later after he was observed tossing the rifle on a lawn.  Stopped by a pedestrian and asked why he was discarding the gun, Briggs reportedly answered, "Oh, I just killed a guy.  Better call the cops."

In custody, Briggs told police he would have killed Ross ten days earlier, but had to wait for his unemployment check before purchasing the weapon for $8.00  "Am I sorry I shot him?," Briggs allegedly told detectives, "Yes -- I'm sorry I can't do it again."  A distraught Betty Briggs denied ever having a relationship with the murdered man.  Following months of bragging about the murder, Briggs pleaded "not guilty by reason of insanity" when told that he faced the death penalty if convicted of capital murder.  At trial in July 1941, Briggs testified he was driven into a deep depression by the breakup of his marriage and suspicions Ross was "chasing around" after his unhappy wife.  The situation reached its crisis, according to Briggs, when he allegedly learned the woman had obtained an abortion, perhaps funded by Ross.  Briggs bought the gun with the intention of killing himself at the rag factory, not Ross.  To no one's surprise, a jury found Briggs to be both sane and guilty of first-degree murder on July 21, 1941.  His appeal for executive clemency rejected by the governor, Briggs was executed in the gas chamber in San Quentin on August 7, 1942.

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